A relief pitcher is constantly living on the edge of success and failure. One pitch can mean the difference between a good night sleep and a lot of tossing and turning. Anyone that thinks that the ninth inning is just like any other is not factoring in the rapid heartbeat, adrenaline rush and tighter grip on the mound and in the batters box. Closers can get exposed quickly if they are not at their peak physically or mentally. These three pitchers are starting to show the cracks that could lead into regular season struggles.
Overvalued Relief Pitchers
Pap is on the downside of an outstanding career. Once a shutdown closer, he has become average and hittable during his tenure with the Phillies. The thought was to get a big game pitcher into Philadelphia and ride his experience to postseason wins. Unfortunately, there have not been any high pressure pennant races or playoffs for the Phils of late. The numbers are pointing to a fairly sharp downturn, with seven blown saves in 36 opportunities. How long will the fans stay patient with ninth-inning disappointment? Philly fans create the pressure much like in New York, so this might not end well. Pap's 2013 BAA of .247 was about 40 points higher than his career average. The fastball has seen better days, with a drastic drop in velocity from his Irish jigging days with the Sox. In his last year with Boston, Pap boasted an impressive 95 mph fastball, but within two seasons, it had dropped to an average 92. Cue red flag. His slider experienced an even larger decline, plummeting 5 mph hour in that span. Worse yet, he has been using his slider substantially more over the last couple years. Sure, he is fiery, competitive and smart, but is that going to be enough?
The saves were impressive for Soriano last year as he debuted with the Nats, but other numbers were warning signs for disappointment. Soriano, like Papelbon, is having his own fastball issues. It peaked in his heyday with the Braves at an average speed of 95 mph, but since then it has been a slow decline to the 90-91 mph range. To compensate, Soriano has started to go away from the slider and now relies on a cutter. The lack of velocity and change in pitch selection has resulted in a huge drop in K/9 (9.18 2012 down to 6.9 2013). By mixing fastballs and cutters, there is no real speed change, making it harder to fool batters. Mariano Rivera threw a ton of cutters, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime type of pitch. Soriano's approach wasn't fooling anyone, as hitters held a .250 average against the aging righty. Buyer beware, there is a lot of wear and tear on that arm.
Talk about a roll of the dice. Seattle ponied up $15M for 2 years of the star-crossed closer. If they get the Rodney of two years ago, give the Mariners credit, but his track record is sketchy at best. For starters, he has had seven seasons with an ERA of over 4.0. Rodney will be returning to the AL West where his last journey was an unmitigated disaster-- he posted two forgettable seasons with the Angels during which he allowed over 1.5 baserunners per inning. That’s right: Fernando walks a lot of guys and has to wiggle through many tough spots. The only problem is that last year, he wasn’t able to navigate his way to the save on eight occasions. His time with the Rays earned him his current contract with the M’s, and his fastball does still sit in the mid-90s. Rodney also made a wise move by continue to develop his nasty change. That said, he was the definitely benefactor of some good luck. At nearly 25% line drive rate for batted balls, there were quite a few “at 'em” balls. Also, his nearly 5.0 BB/9 will be frustrating all the Seahawk fans that put up with the Mariners during the summer.